Monthly Archive for January, 2008Page 2 of 4

Cloudspeakers: The Google Reader of Music Reviews

Yesterday, the Listening Post blogged about a “music-oriented news reader on steroids, backed by a social network” called Cloudspeakers. This site is a music aggregator of sorts with links to music reviews, audio, and video. For the fans out there who obsessively read/write artist and album reviews (i.e. not me), I imagine this could be a very useful resource.

If I spent as much time on Cloudspeakers reading music reviews as I spend on my Google Reader reading music/technology blogs, I might get close to knowing as much about specific musicians and their albums as my co-blogger, Actual. But, I’ll stick to what I know and leave that to him.

Via your profile, email, or RSS, you can stay on top of what’s up with your favorite musicians. OR you can browse labels, artists, or users or search for a specific artist. Whether you want to read bloggers’ reviews, watch youtube videos, or listen to audio, they got ya covered. Check it out!

(CloudSpeakers is powered by MusicBrainz, which is a “user-maintained community music meta-database”. Kind of like the wikipedia of artist/album info.)

Ringtones: When DRM Goes Too Far

Digital Rights Management and the relating issues have been big topics recently in both music news and the world of MixMatchers. As a large portion of our group is involved with creating music, the questions as to who owns it and how it can be controlled are always at the top of the conversational trash heap. It’s a sticky situation which I touched on a bit in my previous post “Record Execs: Stupid or Just Plain Greedy?“, and constantly up for debate. It’s also the subject of quite a bit of mud throwing in the higher levels of the music industry as executives try to pass the buck as to who wants DRM, how they want it and where it came from. Furthermore, some of the bigger companies are starting to roll back their DRM in an effort to make more content cross-compatible with multiple hardware solutions (Apple DRM will only play on iTunes and iPod). Steve Jobs has expressed his opinion, and despite having helped create one of the most profitable and highly controlled DRM markets with iTunes and FairPlay, he advocates an end to DRM for music. I find the amusing point here that Jobs probably said one thing about DRM when he was trying to get label executives to let him sell music on iTunes, but has a much more pro-consumer point of view in his open letter.

Unlike a large majority of my peers, I don’t have a problem paying for my music. In my mind, the .99 cents we pay per track now is a much better deal than the 16-18 we used to pay for CDs. Think about it…on an 18 dollar CD, there might be 12 tracks. Of those, you might only like two. But you don’t know that until you buy the entire thing. Now, you just buy those two tracks, $1.98, and you’re on your way. Furthermore, when you really think about it…if you pay 1 dollar for a song and listen to it 4 times (which you know you’ll do if you’re buying it), that’s .25 cents per listen, right around juke box prices (for those that remember those). Keep listening and the math’ll eventually drop you to fractions of a penny per listen. Not a bad deal in my mind. I’ve noticed that the price and ability to preview tracks before buying them has made me a much more intelligent buyer, and I almost never look through my library and think, “I shouldn’t have bought that.” I can’t say the same for some of the CDs in my collection.

Still, so many of this Generation Y grew up with the full force of Napster, LimeWire and others running the show, and still can’t get used to the idea that maybe musicians deserve to have their music bought. While I won’t name any names here, one of the worst culprits of this idea of stolen music is not only a great friend of mine, but also a musician and aspiring attorney. You would think that if ever there was to be someone who would respect the legal rights and compensation of musicians it would be a fellow musician with a legal background, but not the case. Regardless of how much I pay for my music, he has no problem taking it from me for free, and in the end, I believe he feels an inward sense of smug satisfaction that he’s getting away with something, all the while failing to see where that would leave him if his musical career ever got off the ground.

Where the DRM conversation get really interesting is when you match it with the topic of ringtones. Now that phones are mp3 players too, and Apple’s iPhone is running the game in terms of what a hybrid hardware solution has the potential to be, the ringtones of beeps and blips from our Nokia phones has been replaced with full 2-30 second clips of songs. Just when everyone thought the copyrights were locked up for music, you have to now examine them in the context of clips for ringers. According to Gavroche, the reason for this is that the end user agreements for a song and for a ringtone are different. Then the question becomes why. In my mind, once you’ve paid for something, you should be able to use that personally however you see fit. I’m not advocating the free sharing and swapping of music and ringtones among friends, but if I want to burn the song I bought to a CD, listen to it on an mp3 player or program it as a ringtone, I should be able to without additional cost. iTunes, however, requires you to pay an additional .99 cents to turn one of your songs into a ringtone, and they don’t offer a simple solution, within the application, for turning a non-iTunes store purchase into a ringtone.

Now without getting into specifics that could be at odds with the legal standpoints of the companies I’m talking about, I will tell you that there are solutions to this problem out there. GarageBand offers one of them, and a bit of simple maneuvering of songs within iTunes will help you create a free, custom ringtone from any song in your library. It’s really quite easy once you’ve learned the process and done it a few times, but it still requires multiple steps in order to “trick” iTunes into thinking the clip you’ve made is a ringtone. The problem here is that having already established one payment and method for protecting music, the industry wants to change what and how much you pay to use music you already own in a different way from what they intended when you purchased it. It smacks of revisionism…already late to the party in terms of recognizing the moving trends towards digital music, the industry again finds itself behind the game. “What? You mean people might want to use the .99 cent track as a ringtone and not just a song to listen to? Better find a way to make some money off that.”

As someone who supports the idea of paying artists for their work in a way that is fair and equitable both to them as the producer and me as the consumer, I don’t have a problem with DRM. I don’t think it really solves anything (there’s always multiple ways to “unlock” a track), but if it helps the industry feel better about digitally distributing their product, in the end it benefits me as a listener. But rights are rights, and once a song is purchased, be it an mp3 or a hard copy CD, the purchaser needs to be able to take that song to any device or medium they want, even if that requires copying it for multiple locations. It’s one thing to limit the ease with which people illegally share music with one another. It’s another thing to try to step in and dictate how and when the consumer enjoys their purchase. That’s why my ringer is The Fall by Blake Leyh. So stick it to those DRM people, People, and make your whole library into unpaid for ringtones! Go crazy! That is, of course, if you already own it.

Amateur – Lasse Gjertsen's Duet with Himself

This Norwegian kid does not play the drums or the piano. His video was made using basic timeline editing. Pretty badass.

5 Predictions for Digital Music Trends in 2008

After watching my Mac-obsessed friends win/lose their bets about Steve Jobs’ announcements at the MacWorld Expo this week, I feel obligated to make some predictions of my own. Plus, every self-respecting tech or music blog has to make some predictions for the coming year, right? In no particular order:

1. The beginning of the end of big record labels: With CD sales continuing to plummet and big name artists like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails cutting out the middle man in favor of a direct relationship with their fans, record labels are beginning to look a bit outdated. Probably not the best place to look for a job right now, anyway.

There are now so many ways that artists and fans can find each other online: band websites, social networking and/or music sharing communities (e.g. MySpace, iMeem, iLike), individual mp3 sales (e.g. iTunes, eMusic, Amie Street), music discovery sites (e.g. Musicovery), internet radio sites (e.g. Pandora, subscription services (e.g. Rhapsody, Napster), webzines (e.g. Pitchfork, Mix) etc. Furthermore, services like Slicethepie and Sellaband are paving the way for a more direct financial and emotional connection between creators and consumers.

Not to mention that artists don’t really need a label to get them started on recording an album anymore. With the plethora of affordable software and equipment available, virtually anyone can record their music at home. At this point, it seems the labels have all but given up on reviving CD sales. So, the question is can they find other ways to be profitable? What’s in store for them in their not-so-big future?

2. Music Search Engines: Several new “playable search” engines allow you to simply type in an artist name and then give you a host of options for a song/artist such as: listen to, buy, share, embed, blog, download ringtone, find tour dates, youtube videos, photos etc. Seeqpod, in my opinion, is the best service so far. Also worth checking out are Songza and SkreemR.

On the flip side, there is the concept of search based on sound recognition, which I think is likely to start catching on. Midomi, a community for music fans, uses MARS (Multimodal Recognition System) Search technology, developed by Melodis. Their goal is to “create a comprehensive database of searchable music based on user contribution”. Can’t remember the name of that song stuck in your head? Sing, whistle or hum it to Midomi, then search!

3. Music Widgets – More and more widgets, typically music players that you can embed into, say, your myspace profile or your blog, are popping up. Facebook, with its innumerable enthusiastic application creators, is of course churning out a ton of music-related apps. I think that 2008 will see not only an increasing number of music widgets but also a much higher level of sophistication in these apps.

4. Copyright Restrictions Lesson – Though still a very sensitive area, it seems there is a general trend toward dropping DRM protections. Even Sony BMG is preparing to join the other top music labels in doing so, in an effort to man up and compete with Apple and its market share.

5. Niche Social Networks for Musicians – Now that social networking has pretty much infiltrated the mainstream and everyone from grandparents to business people are hip to the concept, the industry has begun to specialize. All kinds of niche social networks have been popping up, and I predict that in 2008 this trend will gain significant momentum. With special interest groups ranging from beer lovers (Coastr) to shoestring travelers (CouchSurfing) and everything in between, clearly musicians will be trying the various music related social networks on for size. There are quite a few communities and networks for musicians out there now. Some pretty decent. Some…not so much. Luckily, musicians far and wide will soon have a place to call home.

Don't Idolize

Millions of Americans tune in weekly to American Idol. Millions will tonight for its premier. I’m still trying to figure out why.

I know, I know. The TV line-up is thin right now. Unless you’re watching the stellar 5th season of The Wire, indulging your senses in the L Word or devouring the new and improved American Gladiators, life on TV during the writers’ strike is hard. And while Fox may want you to believe it, buy into it, and worship them for it, American Idol is not the solution to your problems. They thought we’d forget that we aren’t getting 24. For years now, Fox has taken the show from over the pond and fed it to you with a sense of smug satisfaction. I mean, think about it…millions of Americans audition, meaning that the job of casting is never difficult (unless you consider that three people actually have to sit there and listen to millions of Americans who think they can sing), it doesn’t take any writers, so that cost and hassle is eliminated, and millions of Americans not only tune in, but actually call and text in to vote. People…they’re laughing all the way to the bank! And now, with the writer’s strike, they’re anticipating running up the viewer count because there is nothing else on. I give you fair warning here, gentle readers…if you really like Idol, or you’re not interested in a prolonged rant against it, this isn’t the post for you. For all the rest of you…read on!

There are numerous reasons not to waste your time on this show. Of course, enjoying wasting your time isn’t one of these reasons. But the reasons, when it comes down to it, need to be split up and addressed differently to both music lovers and people who don’t really care about music. First we’ll tackle the people who don’t really care about music…

You don’t like music or really care about it. You view Idol as pure entertainment, something to throw on the tv while you eat your dinner. In the beginning stages of the show, you like watching horrendously bad people who think they can sing. There’s a certain sort of sick fascination here, like watching a train wreck or taking pictures of a car accident as you drive by. I can almost understand this part…it can be humorous, entertaining to watch people as incredibly bad as the beginning contestants. But as humorous as it can be, what does it say about your taste that this is a good way to spend your time and viewing hours? Is laughing at other people’s misfortune that fun?

Then, you get into the regular show and listen to Simon, Paula and Randy talk about these people as if they’re actual artists. However, the entertainment value here is again derived from watching the contestants get beat up on. What the judges actually say doesn’t have any bearing, because the viewing population is the one who votes on the winners, so why even have judges to begin with? I will point out here that you can basically watch this sort of thing in any local karaoke bar. I recommend here American Gladiators, any National Geographic program, and movie watching as great alternatives to the “entertainment” value of American Idol. You can also spend 45 minutes reading a book and use the 15 minutes of commercial time in a TV hour to go for a walk. Of course, in the end, if Idol is that entertaining to you, you’ll still watch it, but my point here is to get you to sit there for a minute, think about it carefully, and really determine if you’re gaining anything, even real entertainment that couldn’t better be found elsewhere, out of this pursuit.

Then you have the people that enjoy or claim to enjoy music. This is a much easier group to attack. The entertainment goers have some excuses, as in the end what counts as entertainment is a matter of taste, and if you like it, you’re entitled to it. But in my mind, any self-respecting fan of music should have serious problems with this show as American Idol, for all its posturing as a musical show, is virtually devoid of any sort of actual musical quality or content, aside from the few guest appearances throughout the year by actual musicians. The program is supposed to crown the next pop music star, giving label execs a bankable star to sell albums because they have already won over the viewers who vote, so who wouldn’t buy the album?

Well, when you look at the fact that American Idol basically tests to see if you’re able to give a strong karaoke performance on national television, why should you expect any sort of actual musical talent from these people, let alone a decent album? People come on the show that have never made it as musicians, never made it in a band, and haven’t had any luck making it as a singer. These people aren’t just the most absolutely talented singers who happen to have really bad luck getting signed. There’s a reason they haven’t made it! They make the show based on their ability to carry a tune solo, and then progress based on their performances of other artists’ songs. Sure, as a singer you make each song your own, but not in any way that isn’t identical to what happens in millions of karaoke bars the world over. They don’t write their own songs, they don’t make their own music, and they need only the capability to captivate an audience of millions of “average Americans” (and we all know how smart they are from their election choice in 2004) for five minutes at a time. Finally, when the Idol is crowned, someone else usually writes the songs for the album, and the album sales usually flop due to either a) the fact that the Idol watchers have short attention spans and have moved on to other Pop Top 40 hits between the finale and the record release or b) the album exposes them for what they truly are: a glorified winner of a nationally televised karaoke/popularity contest. There are of course exceptions to the rule here, but the last Idol winner, Taylor Hicks, failed to break 1,000,000 album sales and lost his contract. Where were the millions of fans that voted for him when it came time to buy his album on the record contract they helped him get? Even a former Idol contestant (and loser to Hicks), Chris Daughtry, thinks the process is silly. “It’s funny at first, but come on,” he said. “They spend three weeks on people that can’t sing, and that’s what they’re banking it on. (They should) find some people that you can really invest in.”

In addition, you have merely to surf Billboard’s Top 100 or scan the radio airwaves for 5-10 minutes to realize that what the “average American”/radio listener/American Idol watcher knows about music is pretty much nothing. Saccharine singers like John Mayer and Jack Johnson, talentless “rappers” like Soulja Boy (all the people that came to this post from the Soulja Boy tag are now ready to throw me under a bus) and musically bereft bands like Nickelback saturate the entire popular music scene. Sure, there are different musical tastes, and I don’t deny anyone the right to their opinion, but when did the aggregate musical taste of the masses get so bad that a song telling you to “superman dat ho” could spend 26 weeks on the Top 100? Is anyone out there listening anymore? Meanwhile, amazing groups and artists like k-os, Throw Me the Statue, Immortal Technique and Jean Grae make music for years without getting noticed by the masses.

If you’re a “music fan” that’s spending time watching Idol, I suggest to you a visit to a listening station to find an unknown artist, a trip out to see a live performance somewhere, or simply an exploration into the collections of Hall of Famers that you aren’t familiar with. There is so much great music out there that you haven’t heard, I promise.

My Mom loves Idol…she’s of the entertainment crowd that enjoys watching Simon plaster contestants. Whenever I get caught up on my anti-American Idol rant, her constant argument revolves around the millions of people that tune in and call or text in a vote. “30 million people tune in,” she tells me, “they all like it.” I leave you here with the words of a wise person…”what’s right isn’t always popular and what’s popular isn’t always right.” But in the world of pop music and a show like American Idol, it should really be, “what’s popular isn’t always good.”